First responders to fill Island County need for fire inspections

Fire districts will now perform fire inspections for Island County, a service that was provided infrequently following staffing cuts in 2009.

Fire districts will now perform fire inspections for Island County, a service that was provided infrequently following staffing cuts in 2009.

Last week, the county entered into an agreement with the county’s four fire districts allowing them to take over inspections.

Commissioner Helen Price Johnson, who was in office during the 2009 staffing cutbacks, said restoring the county’s ability to perform regular fire inspections is a good step.

“This is an opportunity for us to do two things,” Price Johnson said. “One, to connect the fire inspections with the first responders, which I think is a positive thing, and two, it addresses the needs of the Planning Department.”

The Planning Department has a backlog of permitting and large-scale state-mandated projects.

Prior to the cutbacks, Island County building official Andy Griffin said, the county conducted more than 800 fire inspections each year.

Now, Griffin said he alone performs about two per month, and only when they are required for licensure. In the past, the county took a more active approach in ensuring buildings and new construction were fire safe, he said.

“We haven’t been doing the regular inspections since 2008,” Griffin said. “We lost the ability to do that.”

South Whidbey Fire/EMS Chief Rusty Palmer said first responders are eager to use the inspection process to help keep buildings fire safe.

“Countywide, they have such a small staff,” Palmer said. “The fire departments have greater resources.”

Firefighters have seen an increase in fires as a result of the lack of inspections in recent years, Palmer said, but noted he has no hard data to prove it.

Still, there is plenty of data supporting the overall efficacy of fire prevention measures, he said.

“We’ve proven since the Great Chicago Fire that prevention works,” Palmer said.

While most of the fire districts are staffed to accommodate the extra work, the South Whidbey district is a year or two away from having a dedicated staff inspector.

Meanwhile, they will try to provide the service as best they can, starting with additional inspection training for their public safety officer, he said.

Palmer said he believes there is a definite advantage to having firefighters perform inspections. They are able to spot fire hazards. Also, it’s helpful when first responders are already familiar with the construction of a burning structure.

According to the agreement, fire districts will conduct the inspections under the authority of Island County and receive a portion of fees collected. The county will retain final enforcement and authority.

The agreement includes Island County Fire District No. 1 on Camano Island, North Whidbey Fire and Rescue, South Whidbey Fire/EMS and Central Whidbey Island Fire and Rescue.

The City of Oak Harbor has its own fire department which already performs fire inspections within the city limits.


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